Divided Poland braces for death crash commemoration

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As Poland braces for the first anniversary of a plane crash in Russia that killed president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other high-profile Poles, deep splits contrast starkly with the unity a year ago.

Surveys show the vast majority of Poles believe the disaster of April 10, 2010 has become a tool in a bitterly divided domestic political scene.

Poland's conservative opposition Law and Justice party -- PiS, the political machine of the late president and his twin brother and ex-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- has called out supporters for a mass memorial ceremony Sunday.

They are set to rally from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm at the presidential palace in Warsaw.

A year ago, vast crowds gathered there to pay their respects by placing candles, a mark of mourning in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation.

The rally's location is symbolic for other reasons. PiS is boycotting official ceremonies.

After the crash, PiS lost its brake on Prime Minister Donald Tusk's centre-right Civic Platform, as his ally Bronislaw Komorowski beat Jaroslaw Kaczynski in a snap presidential race.

The crash anniversary comes just six months before a general election, with PiS trailing Civic Platform in polls.

A recent survey showed 87 percent of Poles believe the crash has been exploited politically. Another found 16 percent believe the crash will be an election-decider, and 41 percent, a top theme.

"PiS is deliberately stoking tension ahead of April 10, because that's its principle political fuel," said Warsaw's Civic Platform mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz.

Kaczynski brushes aside such claims, staking his right to do what he sees fit.

"Personally, as long as I live, the mourning will never end," he said this week. "To understand it, you have to have a twin."

He wants a high-profile memorial to be raised in Warsaw to the crash victims -- he is not satisfied by one in a city cemetery, nor by a plaque on the presidential palace.

Lech Kaczynski and all 95 others on board died when the presidential jet crashed in fog as it tried to land in the western Russian city of Smolensk.

Passengers were heading to a ceremony in the nearby Katyn forest for 22,000 captured Polish officers slain by the Soviet secret police in 1940.

Besides Kaczynski and his wife, the crash victims included other senior politicians, military top brass and -- in a bitter twist -- relatives of those killed in 1940.

The World War II Katyn massacre has long poisoned Polish-Russian ties, notably because Moscow pinned it on Nazi Germany until 1990, and was still rarely discussed in Russia after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

While shared mourning over the crash fuelled a relative thaw in ties between Warsaw and its communist-era overlord, they have battled over a Russian crash report blaming the Polish pilots.

Warsaw has protested an alleged whitewash of the Russian air traffic controllers and the shoddy state of Smolensk airport.

After Russia released the probe findings in January, Jaroslaw Kaczynski called it a "mockery".

He blamed the Polish government for leaving Russia in charge of the crash probe -- although international rules put the country where a crash occurs at the helm.

Tusk appealed for the issue "not to be transformed into a political quarrel".

Poles had mourned together as they reeled following the Smolensk crash.

But fractures appeared fast, starting with discord over laying Kaczynski to rest in Krakow's Wawel Cathedral, Poland's pantheon.

The Kaczynski twins were iconic among conservative nationalists -- notably for sorties against Russia and World War II foe Germany -- but loathed by liberal, europhile Poles.

Lech was elected president in 2005. Jaroslaw was prime minister in 2006-2007, but his government fell and he lost a snap general election to Tusk.

Lech and Tusk's fraught working relationship accentuated conservative antipathy towards Civic Platform.

© 2011 AFP

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